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Posts Tagged ‘magic

“No high-minded man, no man of right feeling, can contemplate the lumbering and slovenly lying of the present day without grieving to see a noble art so prostituted”*…

 

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“Joesph’s Tunic” by Velasquez (in which Joseph’s sons lie to him…)

On the sad occasion of the passing of scholar, showman, and sleight-of-hand expert nonpareil Ricky Jay, your correspondent revisited this 2009 interview, conducted by another remarkable, filmmaker Errol Morris in the late, lamented New York Times‘ Opinionator blog….

We think we know what a lie is, but the moment we try to define it, we run into trouble. Take the definition in the Oxford English Dictionary. (A dictionary definition in an essay should be seen as a red flag, or at the very least, an amber cautionary light, but please bear with me.) According to the O.E.D., a lie is “a false statement made with intent to deceive.” The O.E.D. complicates matters by telling us that to deceive is “to cause to believe what is false, to mislead as to a matter of fact, to lead into error” [emphasis mine] [6]. It also tells us that “in modern use, the word [“lie”] is normally a violent expression of moral reprobation, which in polite conversation tends to be avoided, the synonyms falsehood and untruth being often substituted as relatively euphemistic.” This is where the trouble begins. Are “falsehood” and “untruth” really synonyms for a “lie?” Is lying an attempt merely to mislead or an attempt to get someone to believe that which is false? Or is lying used in two different ways? Here, I believe the O.E.D. is merely reinforcing a standard confusion. I would argue that all that is needed for lying are beliefs about what is true or false — not knowledge of what is true or false.

The fact that there are these two senses of lying gets us into trouble. When we focus on intent, the goal of lying seems utterly clear. When we focus on truth and falsity, we are often led into error…

Read it and reap: “Seven Lies About Lying, Part One and Part Two.”

* Mark Twain, “On the Decay of the Art of Lying”

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As we think about trickery, we might send mannerly birthday greetings to a master of the sly deception and the flattering white lie, Baldassare Castiglione; he was born on this date in 1478.  A Renaissance soldier, diplomat, and author, he is most famous for The Book of the Courtier.– a prime example of the courtesy book, offering advice on and dealing with questions of the etiquette and morality of the courtier– which was enormously influential in 16th century European court circles.

Raphael’s portrait of Baldassare Castiglione

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Written by LW

December 6, 2018 at 1:01 am

“Magic is an art form where you lie and tell people you are lying”…

 

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Left: “Pheon Waltz Song” with Herrmann dancing on the cover, 1896. (Photo courtesy of New York Public Library). Right: Poster of Herrmann and Company, around 1905. (Photo courtesy of McCord Museum)

In Baltimore, 1878, an eerie silence settled over the crowd in Ford’s Grand Opera House. The boisterous applause for Herrmann the Great’s wondrous illusions, in which the nattily dressed magician in a black velvet suit pulled a rabbit from his hat and levitated a sleeping woman, had abruptly stopped. A net was stretched across the full width of the theater, and the audience knew that the culmination of the evening — the cannon act — had arrived.

A young woman dressed in spangled red tights stepped into an upper stage box where the cannon waited, and was helped into the barrel. When she had vanished from view, Herrmann the Great yelled out: “Are you ready!”

“Yes,” came her muffled response. “Go!”

There was an explosion.

A flash of gunpowder.

And she flew 50 feet through the air.

Only when she landed safely in the net and the smoke cleared did the audience break into a thunder of cheers that lasted on and on as the curtain rose and fell over the bowing Herrmann the Great and the intrepid young woman.

Although the 19th-century audience might not have noticed, she’d also been the evening’s levitating sleeper, the bicycle rider who carried a girl on her shoulders, and the dancer who spectrally swirled in red silk like a pillar of fire. Her name was Adelaide Herrmann, Herrmann the Great’s wife and daring assistant. She was not supposed to be a human cannonball.

She’d taken over that role in Caracas, Venezuela, when their trapeze artists quit halfway through a South American tour, and she described her anxiety the first night “as a condemned man must feel as the fatal hour approaches.” But as she was loaded into the cannon, she showed no fear.

In 1896, Herrmann the Great — a.k.a. Alexander Herrmann — died, leaving his wife responsible for a traveling company, a herd of performing animals, and a lot of debt. If she was frightened, if she was weary, she hid it just as well as she did that night when she was first shot out of a cannon. Adelaide had no choice but to promote herself from assistant to headliner and take center stage.

“Hearts may be torn, bitter tears may be shed, but we of the stage have a jealous mistress in the public, which demands that we be gnawing at the soul,” she wrote.

She would become the Queen of Magic — one of the most celebrated magicians in the world…

When her husband died and left her penniless, audacious Adelaide Hermann transformed from lowly assistant to “the Queen of Magic”– the extraordinary story: “She Caught Bullets with Her Bare Hands — and Made Magic’s Glass Ceiling Disappear.”

* Teller

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As we believe in magic, we might spare a thought for Elizabeth Cabot Agassiz (née Cary), the naturalist and educator who was the co-founder and first president of Radcliffe College; she died this date in 1907.  After the death of her husband, Swiss naturalist Louis Agassiz, with whom she traveled on scientific expeditions, she settled on the idea of college for women in the “Harvard Annex” in Cambridge; in 1894 the Annex became Radcliffe College.  She served as its first president until 1899, then honorary president until 1903.  Her books include A First Lesson in Natural History (1859), and A Journey in Brazil (1867).

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Written by LW

June 27, 2018 at 1:01 am

“And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places”*…

 

The visual system’s tendency to fill in the invisible parts of the objects we see before us can be exploited to create a wide range of compelling magical illusions: spoons bending, knives cutting through flesh, and solid rings magically linking and unlinking. The principle underlying all these tricks, as well as many others, is that the visual system convinces you that something is there, whereas in fact there is just a gap or a missing piece.

But our visual system doesn’t just fill in the gaps. It can also create a compelling impression that the space hidden behind an object in the foreground is empty. In most situations, this impression is correct, but in some cases, it is illusory and misleading. To magicians, this perceptually empty space is the perfect hiding place for the things they don’t want you to know about. It is a no-brainer that hiding things behind something else makes them invisible, but the illusion of perceptually empty space entails more than just invisibility: it makes you ‘see’ that that there’s nothing there, although there sometimes is – particularly when you are watching a magician at work.

The philosopher Jason Leddington at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania says the experience of magic results from a failure of imagination. Our failure to figure out what the magician does results from the fact that we are unable to imagine it. This view neatly captures the essence of the illusion of empty space: it makes it difficult for us to even imagine that there is anything hidden behind the object in the foreground – be it the magician’s thumb, hand or anything else…

What magic can teach us about what we do– and don’t– perceive: “Now you see it, now you…

* Roald Dahl

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As we confirm that there’s nothing up our sleeves, we might recall that it was this date in 1693 that is traditionally ascribed to Benedictine friar Dom Pérignon’s invention of Champagne.

In fact, the the good father didn’t actually invent sparkling wine:  The oldest recorded sparkling wine is Blanquette de Limoux, which was apparently invented by a different bunch of Benedictines in the Abbey of Saint Hilaire near Carcassonne in 1531.  Then, over a century later, the English scientist and physician Christopher Merret documented the addition of sugar to a finished wine to create a second fermentation– six years before Dom Perignon set foot in the Abbey of Hautvillers (where he did, in fact, make several improvements to the process of making bubbly) and almost 40 years before it was claimed that the famed Benedictine monk invented Champagne.  Merret presented the Royal Society with a paper in which he detailed what is now called “méthode champenoise” in 1662.

Still, today’s a good day to raise a glass in thanks.

Statue of Dom Pérignon at Moët et Chandon

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Written by LW

August 5, 2017 at 1:01 am

“The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper”*…

 

Before the 18th century, most successful magicians were European, and white.  Richard Potter– the son of a slave–changed all that.  A magician, ventriloquist, and fire eater, he is credited with being both the first American-born and the first Black professional stage magician in the (then young) United States.

His extraordinary story at “Gravesite of Richard Potter.”

* W.B. Yeats

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As we say “Abracadabra,” we might recall that it was on this date in 1967, just days after the completion of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, that the Beatles returned to Studio Three, at EMI Studios in London to begin their next project, a film to be called Magical Mystery Tour.  The group laid down the basic rhythm track and assembled the title track’s coach and traffic noises into a tape loop.

While the film was widely panned, the soundtrack album (a double EP in the U.K; an LP in the U.S.) went to #1 on the British and American album charts, and was nominated for a Grammy.

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Written by LW

April 25, 2017 at 1:01 am

“There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact”*…

 

Your correspondent is heading into his annual Holiday hiatus (regular service will resume on January 2), so by way of being sure that readers have something to occupy them in the meantime…

We’ve spent time before with Hans Rosling (“By the Numbers…” and “Poverty is an anomaly to rich people. It is very difficult to make out why people who want dinner do not ring the bell“*…), the man who reasons that experts cannot solve major challenges if they do not operate on facts. “But first you need to erase preconceived ideas,” he says, “and that is the difficult thing.”  Nature has done us all the service of collecting a wide variety of his amazing, mind-changing presentations…

Hans Rosling knew never to flee from men wielding machetes. “The risk is higher if you run than if you face them,” he says. So, in 1989, when an angry mob confronted him at the field laboratory he had set up in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rosling tried to appear calm. “I thought, ‘I need to use the resources I have, and I am good at talking’.”

Rosling, a physician and epidemiologist, pulled from his knapsack a handful of photographs of people from different parts of Africa who had been crippled by konzo, an incurable disease that was affecting many in this community, too. Through an interpreter, he explained that he believed he knew the cause, and he wanted to test local people’s blood to be sure. A few minutes into his demonstration, an old woman stepped forward and addressed the crowd in support of the research. After the more aggressive members of the mob stopped waving their machetes, she rolled up her sleeve. Most followed her lead. “You can do anything as long as you talk with people and listen to people and talk with the intelligentsia of the community,” says Rosling.

He is still trying to arm influential people with facts. He has become a trusted counsellor and speaker of plain truth to United Nations leaders, billionaire executives such as Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and politicians including Al Gore. Even Fidel Castro called on the slim, bespectacled Swede for advice. Rosling’s video lectures on global health and economics have elevated him to viral celebrity status, and he has been listed among the 100 most influential people in the world by the magazines Time and Foreign Policy. Melinda Gates of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation says, “To have Hans Rosling as a teacher is one of the biggest honors in the world.”…

More of Rosling’s story– and lots of his short-but-world-view-changing presentations– at “Three minutes with Hans Rosling will change your mind about the world.”

* Arthur Conan Doyle, “The Boscombe Valley Mystery”

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As we celebrate facts, we might send amazing birthday greetings to John Nevil Maskelyne; he was born on this date in 1839.  An accomplished stage magician, he was also an inventor, perhaps most notably, of the first pay toilet (the “penny toilet,” origin of the phrase “spend a penny”).

His son, Nevil Maskelyne, was also a magician and inventor– and the perpetrator of the first instance of electronic hacking.

John Nevil Maskelyne

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Happy Holidays!  See you in the New Year…

Written by LW

December 22, 2016 at 1:01 am

“It’s still magic even if you know how it’s done”*…

 

There’s a war being waged in the dark corners of the internet. On one side are kleptomaniac pirates hiding in secret communities. On the other side is the law.

For most people, piracy is a simple affair: Movie streaming sites, dubious music blogs – maybe a quick trip to The Pirate Bay if they’re feeling adventurous.

But beneath the surface lies a hidden network of “trackers”, invite-only sites with staggering libraries and stringent invite-only entry requirements. And they’re engaged in a constant game of cat-and-mouse with law enforcement…

The story of the most famously-exclusive tracker around, a site devoted to sharing the secrets of (equally-famously secretive) magicians: “Art of Misdirection is the world’s most exclusive website, and it’s dedicated to illegally sharing magic.”

* Terry Pratchett, A Hat Full of Sky

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As we take care of that rabbit in the hat, we might spare a thought for Frank Caesar; he died on this date in 1948.  The son of a Minneapolis book binder, Caesar became interested in magic after seeing Alexander Herrmann in 1889.  A year later he was touring America as a magician. In 1896 he began performing a “Trunk Substitution,” a gag that Caesar created himself (though likely based on an earlier variation developed by John Nevil Maskelyne, an older stage magician who also invented the pay toilet); the routine became most famous as performed by harry Houdini and his assistant/wife Bess.  Still, it was Caesar’s trademark through a vaudeville career that lasted into the 1920s– after which, he became a manufacturer of magic tricks/equipment.

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Written by LW

December 8, 2016 at 1:01 am

“The greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places”*…

 

Colon, Michigan (the name comes from a pair of nearby lakes shaped like the punctuation mark), a sleepy, one-streetlight town somewhere between Detroit and Chicago proudly bills itself as “The Magic Capital of the World.”  It’s home to around 1,000 residents and holds at least 30 dead magicians [including native son Harry Blackstone, Sr. –The Great Blackstone] in its single small graveyard. The Colon High School mascot is a giant bunny rabbit. Though it lacks the soaring Gothic cathedrals of Hogwarts, it just might be the most magical place in the United States.

For the past 80 years, Colon has hosted Abbott’s Magic Get Together, an annual gathering of several hundred magicians from all over the world who convene for a week of shows, lectures, and trick-jamming. At night, tipsy magicians mingle in bars and restaurants along Colon’s single block of downtown, practicing their craft on passersby. The Get Together is less a conference and more a “family reunion”…

But like any good family reunion, the Get Together has its share of drama. Infighting over the town’s magical heritage has made it harder for aging magicians to cooperate in attracting new members to their community. And modern, everyday technology — not to mention the proliferation of the internet — has made it harder for magic to seem… well, magical.

Still, when you throw hundreds of born-and-bred entertainers into this mecca of illusions, you’re bound to get a party…

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Prepare to be amazed by the story at “Welcome to Colon, Magic Capital of the World.”

* “And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.” – Roald Dahl, The Minpins

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As we take one card from the deck, remember it, then slip it back in, we might recall that it was on this date in 1791 that Mozart’s last– and arguably most glorious– opera, The Magic Flute (Die Zauberflöte, K. 620), premiered in Vienna.  Mozart conducted the opening, though he’d fallen ill only weeks before in Prague; he died 10 weeks later.

Hear the overture here.

 

Librettist Emanuel Schikaneder, shown performing in the role of Papageno.

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Playbill from opening night

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Written by LW

September 30, 2014 at 1:01 am

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